Can't Look

by Nicole Clevenger

Can't Look
by Nicole Clevenger (c) 2002

Disclaimer and notes: Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy, long may they reign. I kneel at the feet of these people and shamelessly beg for scraps. Then I make them into tiny ficlet desserts to share without monetary compensation. No, I do it for love and for feedback. This is a post-ep fic for "War Stories." It absolutely contains spoilers for this amazing episode.

pale. barren.live.justify/.


Simon wakes from dreams of gunfire to the sounds of screaming.

His reflexes have him out of his bed and at the side of hers before the sleep has fully cleared from his eyes. So much for the nightmares improving, he thinks, sitting on the side of the hard mattress beside her thrashing form. As he's done so many times in the past few months, Simon rests a hand on her thin shoulder, attempting to settle her. His lips against her ear, he whispers nonsense in a soothing voice - a trick that works well enough, most nights. "River, wake up... It's me. It's Simon. You're safe..."

The screaming cuts off abruptly as the girl's dark eyes fly open. Simon continues his litany against her wild, confused look and now soft, frightened whimpers. "Shhhh, mei mei, it's okay..." River flinches when he lifts his free hand, but he ignores it, rubbing gently at one pale temple with his thumb. He continues the rythmic motion until her breathing begins to slow.

It has all become second nature at this point, ritual actions to obtain a desired goal. He supposes that it probably had to. It was either that or suffer with her every night - feel his heart ripped out with every scream and tear, stomped on with a new jump for each and every wince and whimper. He's learned to put a wall between himself and her pain, to sit there as a clinical observer. Just another doctor treating just another patient.

River begins to tremble under his fingers, and as an instant matching shiver runs through him he wonders who it is he's trying to fool.

They'd always been so close, and nothing - no matter how hard he tries to pretend otherwise - has changed. They are as linked as if they'd been born twins, closer than most siblings could get in a lifetime. He gave up everything for her, but he knows it was the right decision. The only decision. Because life without her was more barren than any empty stretch of space to be found out there in the black.

"Are you cold?" he asks her quietly. They always seemed to speak in whispers in the night. As if that and keeping the lights off would mean that none of this was real. Would mean that this was all just one more scene in one more bad dream, something to become merely a memory in the light of a new day.

River shakes her head once, pulling away from him to sit up with her back against the wall, her arms wrapped tightly around bent knees . Simon's hands fall to his lap, fighting the urge to reach for her again. He watches her, trying to glimpse her eyes through the dark hair that has fallen over her face. He waits, knowing from experience that to force his way into her guarded shell will only send her further in.

All he wants is to keep her with him, to keep her safe. As if any of them are safe out here. Go down to a planet to for what everyone calls a simple milk run; come back minus an ear and lucky to be coming back at all. Hell, blow out the candles on your birthday cake, seconds before your whole world gets torn apart. Yet, in a way, it almost makes things easier. Why bother being in constant fear of the Alliance if just sitting down for a meal might be the end of you.

This doesn't stop him from being afraid, though. It just usually helps enough to keep the fear from overruning him.

"Can't look. Can't look. Can't look..."

Her murmurs register as they grow louder, and he wonders how long she's been repeating the phrase. He's long since given up wondering what these pieces of thoughts mean. Sometimes he can see through her eyes; most of the time he guesses in the dark.

River's forehead is on her knees, her words muffled in the tangled cloud of her hair. "So many, keep coming. But I hear them... trajectory, velocity, angles and speed... pops from the capgun trailing smoke and death..."

Simon frowns, stroking her arm with the back of his hand. The sounds of gunfire from his own dream echo in his head. There was so much noise on the space station, too much noise to think. Shooting and yelling through the smoke, his heart thudding fast and heavy in his ears. He can feel the weight of the weapon in his hands, the sweat from his palms making it slick and difficult to grip.

"Pop!" River suddenly lifts her head and yells, her shout so loud they both start. "Pop! Pop!" She keeps yelling in the darkness, each syllable running closer to the next until it becomes just a stream of sounds. "Poppoppoppoppoppop..."

Simon grabs her by the shoulders. "River. Stop," he demands. The sounds cease but her lips continue to form the words. Tears well and spill over, trailing silently down her cheeks. Simon pulls her close, enfolding her small frame against him. She buries her head in the junction between his neck and shoulder.

"Danger... they keep coming..." He can barely hear her. Her lips move against his skin as she speaks, and he shivers.

The gun was heavy and awkward in his damp hand. But he had to fight, had to at least try and save the one man who had run risk after risk to protect the two of them. The man who'd called him a member of his crew, despite the fact that they'd been little else but trouble to him since they'd first come aboard. The man who had already proven he'd do the same were the situation reversed.

The man who'd thought to ask him how he was dealing with his part in the rescue, knowing that he didn't live in this world as easily as the rest of them seemed to.

Book had tried to help, too, making that joke about his aim. It was probably true, he knows, but it still doesn't fully justify in his mind that he'd gone in there with a gun in his hand and shot at people. But then, he's learning these days that justification is an elastic thing. It can be stretched to fit many awkward shapes.

"Kaylee doesn't want to play anymore," River mumbles into him. "She sees the darkness now, ate the poison apple. Pop, pop, pop and all the toys soldiers fall. She didn't like the game, but the pieces were running off the sides of the board... had to be contained."

Her speech casts a spell in the dim light, the feeling of full lips against sensitive flesh sending tiny pulses of electricity through him. But now he is distracted by the words themselves, tugging at him amid the jumble of memories and sensations. He'd forgotten about Kaylee, whom he'd left behind to move farther down that hazy corridor. In the midst of all the chaos and the events following, he hasn't had a moment to wonder what had happened to her. Or think about what River had been doing when they'd mounted their rescue attempt. But something in River's dreamy sentences makes him think about it now.

About how quiet Kaylee has been since they got the captain back. His mind flashes an image of her sitting alone on the stairs, apart from the others. He'd watched Mal go slowly up the steps, his mind automatically cataloging all the injuries he wanted to follow up on. Assuming the captain agreed to cooperate. He'd noted the exhaustion in the small smile Kaylee gave him as he passed, then her look had changed to... To what? He concentrates, trying to bring back the details. Foreboding? Discomfort? Fear? And then he'd traced her line of vision to his sister, watching from the catwalk above.

Still, it hadn't been the first time a member of this crew looked at River with disconcertion. And the adrenaline had worn off, leaving them all in something of a daze. "Don't think. Shoot," Book had told him, and that dissociation had carried him through until now. He still doesn't understand what happened, what River's talking about. But the unpleasant lump that has settled in his stomach makes him think it's something he's not going to like.

Simon holds her at arm's length, trying to will her into lifting her head and meeting his eyes. "Mei mei, did something happen?"

After a long moment she nods, looking up at him through long lashes and strands of hair. A sudden irrational desire rises up in him to stop her before she speaks. No, nevermind, he wants to tell her. It's not important. Let's go back to bed. He's just so tired of this endless stream of complications and new horrors, of jumping at his own shadow. So tired of trying to anticipate what this new life will throw at them next. So tired of having to be the strong one for both of them, pretending he isn't carrying around this fear that clings to him like the smell of his sister's vomit to his bed sheets.

River winces, almost as if she hears him. Sometimes it seems as if she can read his thoughts. Simon sighs, knowing none of it matters anyway. He will continue to be the strong one, until River grows strong on her own again. He's working to make it happen, might even be getting close now. He'll take care of her until he can bring her back. Then they'll take care of each other.

"The king was taken, so the pawns took up arms to get him back. Pawns everywhere, black and white... swarming like cockroaches come into light... I didn't look, Simon."

He is confused now, doubting his instincts. Maybe he's imagining things, looking for more trouble where there's plenty already. But her eyes bore into his, trying to convey some message he doesn't understand. "I didn't look," she repeats emphatically.

Simon isn't sure what to do, so he falls back to habit. He brushes a piece of hair back behind her ear, saying, "That's good, River. Good. You didn't need to look."

She shrugs him off, aware she's only being patronized. Her chin comes up, her eyes meeting his dead on. "I could see their sounds. No peeking."

River studies him. Her look changes, softens. Now it is her hand that comes up, small palm resting flat against his cheek. It seems to Simon that she can see all the way through him. "Oh, Simon," she says sadly, "did you look when you shot them?"

The weight in his stomach rises into his throat. He gets up to turn on the light.

end.


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